Review by Lorraine Berry
Room: A Novel, by Emma Donoghue (336 pages, Little, Brown and Company, $24.99).
What draws writers to stories of suffering? Perhaps Tolstoy’s old bromide about happy families—all happy families are alike—is true, and only in suffering can we find unique and compelling stories. It’s difficult to deny the attractiveness of suffering to writers: It lures us with its layers, its textures, its many hues.
But when you enter the realm of suffering as shocking as that endured by the characters in Emma Donoghue’s Room, the urge to explore that suffering seems harder to comprehend—especially when exploring it exposes the writer to charges of exploiting a real-life event.
In this case, the event in question is the story of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian man who locked his daughter Elizabeth in a basement, raped her repeatedly, fathered seven children with her, and kept her prisoner for 24 years. (Fritzl was convicted and is serving a life term.)
When word got out that Donoghue was writing a book about a fictional young woman locked in a cellar for seven years, who bore a child fathered by her rapist captor, cries of “exploitation” were bandied about in the literary world.
But Donoghue, who was runner-up for this year’s Booker Prize, insisted that such was not the case. After reading Room, I am in her corner. While the book may have been germinated by the idea of what Elizabeth had suffered, the end result is nothing like the Fritzl case, except for one crucial detail (which I won’t reveal, as it would be a spoiler).
For one thing, this isn’t really “Ma’s” (as she’s referred to by her five-year-old son) story. It’s his. Donoghue has said in interviews that it was imagining what the world was like for Elizabeth’s five-year-old son, who had never been outside, that put the idea in her head. Donoghue’s own son was four at the time, and that realization jolted her.
And so Room is told entirely by its five-year-old narrator, Jack:
Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. ‘Was I minus numbers?’
‘Hmmm?’ Ma does a big stretch.
‘Up in Heaven. Was I minus one, minus two, minus three—?’
‘Nah, the numbers didn’t start till you zoomed down.’
‘Through Skylight. You were all sad till I happened in your tummy.’”
Thus begins our introduction to Jack, who has never known Outside, and who regards all the inanimate objects in the 11 x 11 shed in which he’s held as proper nouns, to be capitalized, giving each a gender and a personality that he gradually reveals to us. (Table is female; “Meltedly Spoon,” who got too close to the cooking element, is male.)
Old Nick, Ma’s captor, is not her father. (It’s interesting to note that Old Nick is an old English term that refers to the Devil.) Jack is not the product of incest but of rape, and Jack makes clear that, according to Ma, he does not have a father. Donoghue also makes it clear to us, the readers, that Jack is the key to Ma’s sanity, although there are days when she takes to her bed and leaves him to fend for himself. It’s a moving portrait of what a mother’s depression must look like to the child for whom she feels incapable of caring in such moments.
Donoghue paints a world where Jack thinks he has everything he needs, but you can feel the frustration of Ma’s entrapment. She loves Jack and, in a remarkable way, has created a structure for him as if he were a normal child living a normal life.
They have breakfast time (Ma rations the cereal; Jack always notes how many pieces of cereal he gets in the morning); they have exercise time, where Ma has invented ingenious games for Jack to burn off some of his five-year-old energy; there’s reading time, although Old Nick is stingy with the books. Jack has the same books read to him over and over again. He enjoys it, but it’s clear that this rereading makes Ma a bit unhinged (and who, as a parent, has not dreaded having to read a book again, again, again).
One of the books Jack has is The Runaway Bunny, the classic tale of the mother who tells her child that no matter where he goes, she will find him. If he becomes a fish, she will become the fisherman to catch him, and so on. While many regard the book as being about a mother’s undying love, I’ve always been a bit creeped out by it. It reminds me of stalking, of not being able to let go, of captivity, and I find myself wondering if Donoghue chose the book for that reason.
Old Nick leaves Ma books, too, and I cringed when Jack notes that one of them is by Dan Brown. I thought it a bit of morbid humor that Donoghue leaves poor Ma with such bad prose in which to try and lose herself.
The world comes into the shack in three ways: on nights when Old Nick comes to visit (Jack hides in Wardrobe and is unaware of what is happening); through Skylight, where Jack and Ma can tell what the weather is like outside; and through TV.
TV is a make-believe world for Jack, or it is until Ma explains to him, “now that I’m five,” that there really is an outside world with the animals and people that he sees on the television. One of Jack’s favorite shows is Dora the Explorer, and once again, the irony is not lost that a show designed to take kids on adventures shows Jack a world in which he cannot participate.
Except Jack doesn’t see it that way. Everything he needs is right there in his shack. His belongings. His Ma. The world she has created for him and for herself in their hellish hole.
Ma devises a brilliant escape plan, and it works, although it requires great courage from Jack. Suddenly thrust into the world outside Room, he is terrified. Ma is different outside Room, too, as she reunites with her family and finally has the opportunity to talk to psychiatrists and other caregivers about her seven-year captivity.
But Jack reminds me of the figures in Plato’s Cave Allegory. All their lives, they’ve watched the shadows on the wall, convinced that they are observing real life. None dare leave the cave: The sunshine is too bright, the real people too loud, life outside too disorienting. And so they stay, crouched, frightened, and convinced that they are experiencing real life. Plato condemns them for this behavior, but Donoghue, ever-gentle writer, lets us see Jack’s disorientation through his eyes. We feel his fear, his confusion, and his anger that he now has to share Ma with people who are strangers.
For example, the first time Jack ventures outside the clinic where he and Ma are being treated:
The light’s not like in a window, it’s coming all ways around the sides of my cool shades, it wasn’t like this on our Great Escape. Too much horrible shine and air freshing. ‘My skin’s burning off.’
‘You’re grand,’ says Noreen. ‘Big, slow breaths, that’s a boy.’
Why is that a boy? There aren’t any breaths out here. There’s spots on my shades, my chest’s going bang bang bang and the wind’s so loud I can’t hear anything.”
Why would Donoghue choose to write a book about such a depressing, horrific topic? Elizabeth was held for twenty-four years; in comparison, Ma is held for seven. But if we consider that, until Jack was born, she was in solitary confinement—broken only by the arrival of the man who came to rape her—the realization seems almost unbearable.
And yet, I would argue, what drew Donoghue to this story is the writerly instinct to try and understand suffering. No, more than just understand it: to redeem it.
I once experienced an obsession of my own with a real-life person who suffered a tragic fate. I was a grad student in history, focusing in the area of “microhistory”—a subfield involving documents that tell the story of a single individual (think The Return of Martin Guerre). The object of my obsession was Matteuccia di Francesco, a fifteenth-century Italian village woman who sold medicines and practiced a little “love magic” for others in her community.
Matteuccia became a scapegoat sinner offered up to a fire-and-brimstone-preaching Franciscan monk to ward off the wrath of God. She was arrested and tortured until she confessed to forging a pact with the devil, then burned alive.
Her tragic persecution tore at me. I knew my job as an historian was not to write a redemption narrative. I told myself I didn’t believe in them, and I loved to poke holes in others’ work by pointing out how they had infused their scholarly articles with some sort of redemption tale in which someone “did not die in vain.”
Eventually, though, I had to admit that my attraction to the story of Matteuccia was about redemption. I couldn’t stand that she died a horrific death, a meaningless death, persecuted for a fantastical crime. I wanted to give her a happy life, to find moments when she had experienced joy—love, even—and to see her as a whole person, not just the bits and pieces of her that were left to us in the notarial summary. I wanted to write a novel about her.
I suspect that a similar impulse drove Donoghue to write Room. Thinking about what Elizabeth endured is simply unbearable: 24 years of captivity, 7 children. At her trial, she estimated that she had been raped by her father 3,000 times. 3,000.
Donoghue has an opportunity to give Ma happiness. Ma goes back to her old world (although not without some terrible bumps), but she is saved. It is Jack, brought up in the Cave, who must now learn to live among humans. He longs to return to Room, the safety of the womb, where it was just him and Ma. Freedom always comes with a price.
Ultimately, Donoghue restores Ma to life, raises her from the dead, redeems her.
As writers, is that not what we wish to do for a world we watch spiral toward death?
Lorraine Berry teaches creative nonfiction at SUNY Cortland. Her essays have been published in such places as Salon, Common Dreams, and At the Bottom of the World, with another expected soon in The Raven Chronicles.
She recently finished a memoir manuscript. Lorraine lives in the Finger Lakes region of New York State with her partner and her two children.